Philosophical Reflections on Iran’s 2006 ‘International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust’ (Part 3/4)
►Quantifying the Holocaust: How and Why the Iranian ‘Global Vision’ Conference Utilized and Advocated the Phraseology of Science: Former state of Louisiana House of Representatives member (and once imperial wizard of the Klu-Klux-Klan) David Duke spoke at the conference on December 11th, 2006, calling the Holocaust “the world’s most repressed idea”. In his speech he desires to challenge the past as it has been received and transmitted through dominant media sources. He refers to the Holocaust as an “altar” where wars and occupations, harming both Middle Eastern and American interests alike, are “chronic[ally] recited”. Conflicts such as the quagmire in Iraq are, in Duke’s opinion, not fought for the United States but for Israel. In order to question the rationale for the Iraqi war, understood as occurring on the sacrificial altar of the Holocaust, Duke claims that it is necessary to “diverge from the orthodoxy”. This divergence occurs through revisionism and denial. But now we must ask: ‘What are the linguistic characteristics of this revisionism and denial? What sort of phraseology does Duke advocate?’ After all, in the second half of his speech he expresses a great deal of anger over the fact that revisionists such as researcher / chemist Gemar Rudolf have been imprisoned for subjecting history to a detailed forensic analysis. He becomes even more enraged that opponents of figures such as Ernst Zundel refuse to debate them.
It is clear that Duke’s view of the Holocaust is twofold. Firstly, he argues that the Holocaust should be treated as a historical event like any other. If Hollywood can create an epic concerning Auschwitz and screen it in his local multiplex one screen away from Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Released in Canada on the same day as Schindler’s List.), why can he not treat it as he might an atrocity like the widely interrogated Vietnam War? Secondly, and far more importantly, for Duke the term Holocaust is defined in a specific idiom that tolerates only historical and scientific truth. For instance, he angrily claims: “In prosecutions of Holocaust questioners, authorities have not allowed introduction of any evidence supporting the defendant’s claims. The courts have even announced in their guilty verdicts that ‘The truth is no defense,’ i.e. that even if the defendant can be shown to be honest and accurate, and even if his claims can be substantiated by physical and documentary evidence, he has broken the law by simply questioning aspects of the official Holocaust Story.” He is perturbed that questioning the Holocaust on the grounds of “research and reason” results in incarceration and silencing. We become aware of an incommensurability (one that we will return to shortly) between those who, for political and ideological reasons, define and discuss the Holocaust in a lexicon of quantitative fact and forensic analysis and those who, in Duke’s opinion, proclaim that the “truth is no defense” and whose lexicon is not focused on analyzing or revisiting physical and documentary evidence. For instance, when asked about the conference, the former French Ambassador to Iran Francois Nicoullaud exclaimed “Ahmadinejad is trying to scientifically justify the unjustifiable.” (see “Iran Hosts Anti-Semitic Hatefest in Tehran” Anti Defamation League) The term Holocaust, in this case, is defined by a meaning independent of physical or documentary evidence. In contrast, on December 12, 2006, Michelle Renouf gave one of the most virulent and blatantly anti-Semitic rants of the entire ‘Global Vision’ conference (Renouf, Michelle. “Speech at the Global Vision Conference” Telling Films). She prefaced her inane remarks, unsurprisingly, with frustration that Holocaust deniers were stifled or “imprisoned for expressing a rational, source-analytical opinion” and concluded with a call to “address the truth”.
In the situation alluded to above we find two parties locked in a dispute. Both parties accept the same term, say term ‘A’, however cannot agree on ‘A’s’ constitution or properties. A mediator or judge arrives to settle the dispute between them, however as much as he tries, is unable to set “a rule of judgment” that both sides can agree to resolve their dispute with (see Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. ix). The first chapter of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Differend: Phrases in Dispute describes a situation such as this. How are we to rule on the validity of different narratives or phrasings used to argue about a single event? These heterogeneous and often incommensurable discourses often come into conflict with one another. There is, for Lyotard, an “absence of a universal genre of discourse to regulate” these divergent narratives or phrasings. As a result there is an apparent “impossibility of avoiding conflicts”. Lyotard’s term “differend” describes the conflict “between (at least) two parties that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments”. The conflict cannot be resolved because no common language exists for the parties to express their arguments.
Phenomena such as Holocaust denial may be understood, to some extent, as based upon a problematic and irresolvable conflict of phrasing. Perhaps ‘Global Vision’, the official title of the Iranian conference is revealing in this regard. What sort of ‘vision’ (and whose) is the conference advocating? Furthermore, is it possible to act as arbiter or judge when conference attendees proceed with one type of ‘vision’, while opponents of the conference scrutinize it with another type of ‘vision’? In this regard the ‘Global Vision’ conference is symptomatic of the dilemma we face when responding to the arguments of Holocaust deniers. Deniers will often argue in a phraseology whose lexicon draws on terms of empirical and scientific fact while their opponent’s phraseology draws on terms that protect the moral gravity of the Holocaust. Take for example the Leuchter Report, an engineering document that purported to provide chemical analysis of cyanide content from the walls at the ‘alleged’ gas chambers in Auschwitz, Birkenau and Majdanek. Holocaust deniers or revisionists might cite the Leuchter Report as a series of facts capable of shattering what they take to be the ‘myth’ of the Holocaust. Whether or not opponents of Leuchter agree or disagree with his methodology or scientific prowess, they are alarmed by such an attempt to disprove or question the Holocaust, an event whose magnitude, for them, exceeds the sum of its individual atrocities.
So now let us return to the ‘Global Vision’ conference. What genre of discourse is the conference “playing” in? In the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs’ greeting to conference attendees he asks: “Why should interest in researching and questioning different aspects and dimensions of a historical event such as the holocaust become politicized and become an ideological taboo.” (IPIS: Institute for Political and International Studies. Text of Speech by His Excellency. December 11, 2006). In this comment we find a sharp distinction between discourses whose criteria (or terminologies) are either political / ideological or scientific.
I argued, in an earlier post, that one of our questions that demands an answer is whether it is acceptable to engage deniers and revisionists on their own terms. Does this mean that we too must resort to a reciprocal flinging back and forth of quantifiable information? Doing so jeopardizes our moral phraseology. But this is not the only issue we must keep in mind. Lyotard (citing the arguments of revisionist Robert Faurisson) reminds us of the way that engagement with deniers can transform a plaintiff into a victim. He scrutinizes the manner that Faurisson’s logic has the power to deprive a plaintiff of the power to present their wrongdoing. For instance, Faurisson wants proof of the Holocaust. Valid proofs for him consist of affirmative statements from eye witnesses and victims. His skillfully deceptive argument comes to rest on the (im)possibility of receiving an affirmative statement from an eyewitness and/or victim of the gas chambers. Faurisson claims “I have analyzed thousands of documents. I have tirelessly pursued specialists and historians with my questions. I have tried in vain to find a single former deportee capable of proving to me, that he had really seen, with his own eyes, a gas chamber”. When we analyze Faurisson’s arguments we realize that the only valid eye witnesses are the dead. Under such logic it follows that there were no gas chambers. If there were no gas chambers than there would be no eyewitnesses to produce evidence of their existence. If there were indeed gas chambers there would still be no living eyewitnesses to produce evidence of their existence. Based on this logic one might conclude that there were no gas chambers. Faurisson’s logic looks something like this: either p or not p; if not-p, then Fp; if p, then not-p, then Fp. both p and not-p lead to Fp.
As James Palermo points out in his short response paper “Reading Lyotard: On the Politics of the New” that Faurisson’s meta-discourse is positivistic. Palermo writes: “It is the meta-discourse of positivism with its epistemological criterion of falsifiability”. Lyotard would agree, as he claims in The Differend, that “It cannot be said that a hypothesis is verified, but only until further notice it has not been falsified…the victims of extermination camps must prove that extermination.” (Palermo, James. “Reading Lyotard. On the Politics of the New. Philosophy of Education. 2003.) It is here that we find the danger described earlier of a plaintiff becoming a victim. In other words, it becomes the responsibility of the plaintiff-turned-victim to show proof that he or she was harmed. The problem is that demonstrating proof based on Faurisson’s language (and the logic that accompanies it) is impossible. If we were to engage with deniers such as Faurisson we might find ourselves unable to create proofs of being wronged. We might testify that we were wronged, however – as Lyotard explains – “the testifying phrase is itself deprived of authority”. We cannot present wrongdoing if we have lost the means to prove it. “Reality” becomes the plaintiff’s responsibility which he or she is forced to demonstrate and prove with “well formed phrases”.
If we were to attend the ‘Global Vision’ conference, how could we expect a regulator to fairly regulate the conflict that would obviously ensue? The conference itself pits one phraseology or language game against another. We would have to avoid a situation where “regulation” of a conflict between two opposing parties “is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom.” How would a regulator deal with cases where a question, based upon its phrasing, causes one party to be incapable of a response? Faurisson transforms the plaintiff into a victim by exploiting situations where his questioner cannot answer and is reduced to silence. Such a refusal to participate in the language game, or even the recourse to silence, is an example of recognizing the impossibility of answering in a manner that fulfills the two sparing phraseologies. Silence, for example, can be considered as something other than the result of not being able to find the correct words. Perhaps one party may not be able to put their experience into well formed phrases in the time provided to them. Maybe they are struggling to find an acceptable idiom or are aware of the absurdity of phrasing what they are being asked to express. Or maybe the survivor does not feel that they are in a position of authority to speak. Furthermore, why should we assume they feel compelled to answer someone like Faurisson? Silence, as Lyotard reminds us, can be a “substitute for phrases”. This allows us to challenge Faurisson’s view of silence, notably its revelation that “it [murder by poison gas] never took place” during the Holocaust.
When we engage with deniers we play into their language game, a dangerous act given that such games are obviously given a greater degree of legitimacy by their increasing performances. In Assassins of Memory, author Pierre Vidal-Naquet clearly feels the weight of this dilemma in being unable to respond adequately to Faurisson. Lyotard offers a summary of Vidal-Naquet’s curious and frustrating experience: “If Faurisson is ‘in bad faith’, Vidal-Naquet cannot convince him that the phrase There were gas chambers is true.”